EMU Foundation, athletics team up to help preserve University's Division I status
YPSILANTI — Eastern Michigan University’s athletic department and the EMU Foundation have joined forces to create a new program that will help provide incentives to area elementary and middle school students while helping the University preserve its NCAA Division I athletic status.
The game plan is simple.
The EMU Foundation will spend $116,000 to provide free football tickets to area students who excel in the classroom which, in return, will help EMU meet the NCAA requirement of an average of 15,000 fans per game to retain its Division I status.
“The Board of Regents, the EMU Foundation Executive Committee, President Fallon and the University’s Strategic Operations Council are in agreement that preserving our NCAA Division I status and remaining a fully-vested member of the Mid-American Conference (MAC) are essential to the long-term future of Eastern Michigan University,” said Darryl Sczepanski, EMU’s vice president for advancement and executive director of the Foundation. “We could not allow an attendance issue to jeopardize our good standing in the NCAA or the MAC.”
Sczepanski said that the money for the tickets will come from a number of sources, including investment income and Eagle Crest Management Corporation dividends. No general fund or University funds will be used, Sczepanski said.
The money will be used to purchase 23,000 football tickets that will be used for the remaining three home football games in the 2006 season. Those tickets will help ensure an average of 15,000 tickets sold per home game.
According to Stephannnie Harvey, marketing director for EMU athletics, students in Ypsilanti, Willow Run, Lincoln Consolidated and Plymouth-Canton schools are participating in the Football Community Outreach Program. The tickets are awarded to students based on their achievement of class goals and are given at the discretion of the teacher.
“We are doing everything we possibly can to maintain our NCAA Division I status,” said Derrick Gragg, who became EMU’s athletic director in 2006. “We have made significant strides in tickets sales, especially in corporate participation. Last year, we sold 75 season tickets to corporations each game. This year, we have sold 3,100 corporate tickets per game,” said Gragg.
But even with that 4,000-percent increase in corporate sales and growing alumni support, Gragg said time is EMU’s biggest obstacle. Gragg said that a school has to make the 15,000 average at least every other year in order to remain a NCAA Division I status. EMU did not reach that mark last year.
If EMU doesn’t make the required average attendance in the next three home games, a domino effect could occur in athletics. Revenue from EMU football helps support many other athletic programs at EMU. And while the Eagles’ football team has struggled of late, EMU is aided financially because it is a Division I school. It gets a larger piece of the revenue when it plays against teams such as Michigan and Northwestern, according to Gragg.
Another piece influencing the equation is that the MAC requires each member institution to retain a Division I football program. If a school doesn’t, then it cannot be a member of the conference.
If EMU were to drop to Division I-AA or Division II in football, other athletic programs could be impacted, if not lost. That could lead to a decrease in the number of scholarships available to all EMU athletes.
“This is not about saving one sport,” said Gragg. “This is about preserving the status of our entire athletic program and giving our student-athletes the best experience possible.”
Howard Bunsis, EMU’s NCAA faculty athletic representative, understands the impact athletics can have on students.
“In my role as the faculty athletic representative, I have had the opportunity to see firsthand how participation in sports enhances the overall educational experience at EMU and helps student-athletes connect with the community,” Bunsis said. “As the NCAA Faculty Athletic Representative, I support the concept that EMU maintain its Division I status.”
This is not the first time that EMU has had to utilize administrative support to remain a member of the MAC. A similar situation arose in the 1980s when EMU’s attendance numbers were waning and the University was facing removal from the MAC.
“The University rallied its resources then to preserve our place in the MAC and we are doing it again,” said Gragg.
Gragg said he understands why such administrative support can make some uneasy.
“I want to be clear that we are not breaking any rules or policies,” Gragg said. “There are certainly several other institutions that we know of in our conference who are utilizing administrative support to help reach the NCAA number. This is perfectly acceptable to the NCAA and the MAC.”
While EMU will meet the 15,000 average this year, Gragg said that work is well underway to help keep EMU on track to grow its attendance and avoid any more close calls in the future.
“We are developing an aggressive strategic marketing plan to help address this and we have enlisted the support of a marketing consulting firm, National Collegiate Athletic Directors Association Consulting,” Gragg said. “NACDA, a sports marketing group that specializes in ticket sales, is highly regarded by other MAC member institutions that have utilized their services.”
Eastern Michigan University is a public, comprehensive university that offers programs in the arts, sciences and professions. EMU prepares students with the intellectual skills and practical experiences to succeed in their career and lives, and to be better citizens.
Editor's Note: Looking for an expert source for a story? Check out EMU's Eastern Experts online at www.emich.edu/univcomm/easternexperts.